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For Iowa farmers who lost crops, derecho damage is 'heartbreaking,' US Agriculture chief says

Donnelle Eller Kylee Mullen
Des Moines Register

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue on Thursday, Sept. 3, declared Story, Boone and 16 other Iowa counties natural disaster areas, making farmers eligible for federal assistance from twin disasters that have hit the state.

His announcement came after he toured the state to view the damage caused when an Aug. 10 derecho with hurricane-force winds damaged millions of acres of corn and soybeans. In addition, a growing drought now encompasses four-fifths of the state.

Perdue, a former Georgia governor who surveyed the damage from an Iowa National Guard helicopter, said the damage he saw was deeply saddening.

"For an old farm boy, it was pretty disheartening," Perdue said following an Ames stop at Performance Livestock Analytics. "You worked hard all year long to get a good crop, and you're just a few weeks away from harvest, and then an in-land hurricane (goes through). It was tough."

Accompanying Perdue were Gov. Kim Reynolds, Iowa U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst and state Agriculture Secretary Mike Naig, all Republicans.

Perdue said congressional action would be needed to boost crop insurance payments for Iowa farmers under the Wildfires and Hurricane Indemnity Program Plus. The secretarial disaster designation he provided Thursday qualifies farmers for loans and other assistance, and more counties could be included in the disaster declaration, he said.

Disaster assistance to farmers also could be provided under a congressional package targeting aid to Americans harmed while struggling with the coronavirus, Ernst said. 

"We have a targeted package that we have been working on, and in that package we have put together $20 billion, and that would be discretionary funds for the USDA secretary to utilize for those industries that have been heavily impacted by COVID-19," Ernst said during the Ames stop.

Jim Greif, president of the Iowa Corn Growers Association, said Iowans need more help.

"It's not just crop damage but catastrophic damage to grain bins," said Grief, who farms near Monticello in eastern Iowa and experienced damage from the storm. 

Dennis Friest, who farms south of Radcliffe, said the derecho and drought hit his family's farm.

"Farmers are really struggling financially," Friest said. "There's no doubt about it. ... We've got to have help to get through this."

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue, left, waits to speak to members of the press with Senator Joni Ernst, center, and Gov. Kim Reynolds, right, at Stolee Farms on Thursday, Sept. 3, 2020 in Radcliffe. Perdue announced that he is designating 18 counties as primary natural disaster areas enabling farm operators to apply for assistance from the Farm Service Agency. Farmers will have eight months to apply for the emergency loans.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimated Wednesday that government payments would make up 36% of the estimated $102.7 billion in farm income this year. Corn, soybean, wheat and cotton receipts all are expected to be lower this year, the USDA reported.

Ernst said she would push for farm disaster assistance in Congress next week when she returns to Washington. "We need to draw recognition to what happened in the state," she said.

Reynolds said she thought the damage to Iowa's corn and soybean crop looked worse than when she initially saw it after the derecho swept through the state.

Reynolds in her derecho disaster declaration request to President Donald Trump estimated that Iowa's damage totals close to $4 billion, including about $3.8 billion to agriculture.

The derecho, packing winds of up to 140 mph, swept across nearly 14 million acres of corn and soybeans in 57 counties, with 6 million acres in 36 counties taking the brunt of the damage.

Many farmers slammed by the derecho also are struggling with the drought, which now encompasses 83% of the state, the U.S. Drought Monitor map showed Thursday.

Extreme drought now encompasses 15% of the state, doubling from about 7% last week. It's mostly centered in west-central Iowa.

Naig and Reynolds said they would push congressional leaders to help farmers with disaster aid, which would boost the crop insurance payments that Iowa farmers would receive.

More than 90% of Iowa farmers have crop insurance, typically protecting 80% to 85% of either their crop yield or revenue.

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue speaks on Stolee farms after touring the facilities conservation efforts with Republican Senator Joni Ernst, Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds and Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Mike Naig on Thursday, Sept. 3, 2020 in Radcliffe. Perdue announced that he is designating 18 counties as primary natural disaster areas enabling farm operators to apply for assistance from the Farm Service Agency. Farmers will have eight months to apply for the emergency loans.

Perdue said he's troubled about inconsistencies in how private crop insurers are evaluating losses that farmers have experienced. For example, he said, "one neighbor is determined a total loss, and the other has to go through the process of" attempting to harvest the crop "and may not get anything. We're going to work on that."

The agriculture department doesn't have regulatory authority over the companies, but Perdue said he plans to talk with them to "get more consistency."

In addition to the drought and derecho, Iowa farmers have expressed frustration that the Trump administration is again considering dozens of small refinery exemptions that the industry says last year cut by billions of gallons the amount of ethanol and biodiesel the oil industry is required to blend into the nation's fuel supply. 

Ethanol is about 10% of the fuel used in the U.S. Roughly half of Iowa's nation-leading corn crop goes to making renewable fuels.

The president won praise from farmers in 2019 for approving year-round use of gasoline with 15% ethanol, but that move was overshadowed by the Environmental Protection Agency's approval of 85 small refinery exemptions.

The industry says the exemptions have cut an estimated 4 billion gallons of renewable fuel demand since 2016.

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue prepares to sign a declaration on Stolee farms after touring the facilities conservation efforts with Republican Senator Joni Ernst, center, and Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds on Thursday, Sept. 3, 2020 in Radcliffe. Perdue announced that he is designating 18 counties as primary natural disaster areas enabling farm operators to apply for assistance from the Farm Service Agency. Farmers will have eight months to apply for the emergency loans.

Ernst, who asked Trump last month to talk with the EPA about the waivers, said she expected to hear from the agency on its plans for the exemptions, possibly as early as next week.

This year, the EPA has almost 100 more requests, even after a federal appeals court ruled in January that the agency had exceeded its authority in granting certain exemptions.

Soybeans also are used in renewable fuels, and the Iowa Soybean Association and the Iowa Biodiesel Board said in a letter to Perdue this week that the federal mandate "supports 13 percent of the value — $1.15 in today’s market — for every bushel of Iowa’s soybeans."

"That is value Iowa’s farmers cannot afford to lose right now. And it would make no sense for President Trump’s USDA to support Iowa’s farmers and biodiesel producers with one hand, while EPA undercuts that support with the other," the groups wrote Perdue.

Last month, Iowa farm and renewable fuel leaders sent Trump a letter, telling him that without action on ethanol, he risks losing rural voters, a bloc vital to his reelection bid.

"Iowa may very well hang in the balance," farm leaders wrote the president.

However, after touring Stolee chestnut farm and CREP wetland structure in Radcliffe, touring Eagle's Catch Aquaculture Farm in Ellsworth, and viewing a demonstration of Performance Livestock Analytics' cloud-based cattle management software in Ames, Perdue said it's an honor to "serve such a resilient and faithful community."

"We saw some of the more somber, sober, sad situations on the aerial tour today, but we also have seen some of the best," he said at the conclusion of the Ames visit. "Farmers are some of the most resilient, toughest people in the world ... every time they get knocked down, they get back up."

Here are the 18 Iowa counties included in U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue's disaster declaration Thursday: Benton, Boone, Cedar, Clinton, Dallas, Guthrie, Hamilton, Hardin, Jasper, Johnson, Jones, Linn, Marshall, Polk, Poweshiek, Scott, Story and Tama. Twenty-four contiguous counties are also eligible for disaster relief programs: Adair, Audubon, Black Hawk, Buchanan, Butler, Carroll, Cass, Delaware, Dubuque, Franklin, Greene, Grundy, Iowa, Jackson, Keokuk, Louisa, Madison, Mahaska, Marion, Muscatine, Warren, Washington, Webster and Wright.